Chennai water crisis: Why provision, while alluring, couldn't slake a growing city's thirst

This is the second in a four-part series on the Chennai water crisis. Read more from the series here.

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நீர்இன்று அமையாது உலகெனின் யார்யார்க்கும்
வான்இன்று அமையாது ஒழுக்கு.

This couplet from the Thirukkural was written by a resident of Chennai 2,000 years ago. It means: Without water, no person — however important — can function. Thus, without the clouds and rain, order cannot be maintained.

The Northeast monsoon in important to Tamil Nadu.

The northeast monsoon (NEM) season of October to December (OND) is the chief rainy season for this subdivision with 48 percent (438.2 mm) of its annual rainfall realised during this season,” says the Indian Meteorological Department.

But in 2018, the Northeast monsoon was a failure — bringing 24 percent less rain into Tamil Nadu than it was projected to. Chennai was amongst the worst hit, getting just 353 mm, or less than half of the 790 mm it was supposed to get.

As the months rolled by, life for Chennaiites did not get better. Between 1 March to 31 May 2019, called the pre-monsoon season, Chennai got no rain. In normal times, it should get about 58.5 mm on average. The heat did not help either — we are in the midst of a mild El Nino, bringing with it the possibility of higher temperatures and less rainfall during the Southwest monsoon.

But to blame the rainfall alone is wrong.

Providing for Chennai’s thirst vs adapting demand to existing water resources

For millennia, people of Chennai have relied on tanks, shallow wells and its three seasonal rivers — the Adyar, the Cooum and the Kosasthalaiyar — for their water. Much like other regions with scanty local rainfall fed by seasonal rivers, there was a system of cascading tanks that provided much-needed storage to stretch out the water through the year.

Let us focus on one of the rivers, the Cooum. Anyone who drives past the Cooum today knows the smell of sewage that penetrates even the most tightly closed windows.

 Chennai water crisis: Why provision, while alluring, couldnt slake a growing citys thirst

A man walks through the dried-up Puzhal reservoir, on the outskirts in Chennai. REUTERS

The Cooum river originates from Thiruvallur, and receiving surplus waters from the Kosasthalaiyar and Palar, meanders through Chennai before emptying in the Bay of Bengal, draining about 505 square km enroute. Its origins are enshrined in legend (read the fascinating stories here). The Skanda Purana speaks of how once Shiva, the God of Destruction, forgot to worship Ganesha, the God of new beginnings, before setting out to destroy three asuras (demons in Hindu lore). Ganesha was Shiva’s son, but rules are rules, and such a breach meant a break in the axle of Shiva’s chariot. To balance himself, Shiva planted his bow to the ground, and the ancient underground Palar (the surface waters of which rise in the Nandi Hills near Bengaluru) rushed up to wash his feet. These waters became the Cooum. Such was the power of the river, that even sins that could not be cleansed by the Ganga would be washed away by a dip in this river.

That was then. Today, one would be ill advised to take a dip in the Cooum, which serves as a glorified sewer for Chennai.

The slow death of the Cooum began in 1872 when a weir was constructed by William Fraser across the Kosasthalaiyar to divert its waters to Cholavaram and thence to the Red Hills lake — eventually to reach the Kilpauk water works. But the Cooum sustained itself by the waters of the Kosasthalaiyar, so this diversion stuck a body blow. The reason for the weir and the subsequent water works at Kilpauk was rooted in providing drinking water for the rapidly growing Chennai metropolis. It was the first rung on the ladder of the provision approach, rooted in a command-and-control philosophy, as opposed to the adaptation approach, such as a system of cascading tanks embodies.

The problem with the provision approach, as we shall see, is that while it did keep pace with the demand trajectory, in part because it placed no bounds on demand. Remember, in earlier times, one lived by a river, or took out water from a well. Any water used needed arduous work, which impressed its own stamp of value on water. Water laboriously begotten was thus judiciously used for bathing, washing and cleaning. There were likely not many profligate showers, no flushing toilets or wasteful washing. But as Chennaites grew wealthier and experienced water at their doorsteps, they became more relaxed about their water use. Demand really took off, however, when the population exploded.

In the 20th century, like many other cities in India, Chennai’s population skyrocketed.

Figure 1: Chennai Population, Census of India

Figure 1: Chennai Population, Census of India

A higher urban population means higher year-round demand. This is a problem considering India’s (and Chennai’s) highly seasonal rainfall. This kind of rain needs the percolation infrastructure and storage to allow it to be used through the year. Leonardo Di Caprio’s statement that only rain can save Chennai is not strictly true — rain, coupled with adequate storage mechanisms and demand management can. But what this high perennial demand does is that is increases the value of sources that supply water during the lean, cruel summer months; i.e., the desalination plants and groundwater. When the Southwest monsoons are good, sources like the Veeranam lake become somewhat reliable. (Aside: in such a situation, it is peculiar that we are underusing one local, perennial source. We will come back to this later.)

Not only did population grow, but importantly in water management terms, population density grew as well, from about 7,000 people per square km to over 26,000 people living in that square km. Each of these people needs water to drink, wash and use in their toilets, which meant the water management authority had to provide larger quantities of water at any given time.

Figure 2: Chennai Population Density, Census of India

Figure 2: Chennai Population Density, Census of India

To keep pace, Chennai tried to augment supply, or increase provision. It did so by constructing the Poondi reservoir in 1944, by increasing the height of the lake bunds — Cholavaram, Red Hills and Poondi in 1972 — increasing the total storage to 6296 mcft.

The Metrowater website states,

The system was then designed for a supply of 115 lpcd [litres per person per day] for an estimated population of 0.66 million expected in 1961.”

But water demand of the city outstripped the planner’s anticipation. In 1962, irrigation rights of the three tanks were purchased and their entire supply was earmarked for the city’s drinking water. But that was not enough.

Then, Chennai succumbed to the lure of the borewell. The Metrowater website says,

Based on the UNDP studies carried out during 1966 to 1969, ground water aquifer was identified at Tamaraipakkam, Panjetty and Minjur in the Araniar-Kosathalaiyar Basin (AK Basin) located north of Chennai. These three Well fields were developed for abstracting water at an estimated yield of 125 MLD.

When this too failed to quench Chennai’s thirst, the government continued to climb up the provision ladder, by signing an accord with the Andhra Pradesh Government on 18 April 1983 for drawing 15 TMC of Krishna water to Chennai City. Interestingly, even in the design, a fifth (3 TMC) of the water was expected to be lost to evaporation! Who cared — after all, provision was the focus, not management.

Meanwhile, at least on paper, with Chembarambakkam’s water, the on-paper storage capacity of Chennai’s lakes rose to 11,527 mcft in the 1990s.

But a future water plan showed a looming gap, and drinking water crises continued to erupt frequently. New sources needed to be identified. In 1996, Chennai Metrowater and the World Bank conducted an assessment of various alternatives for supplying additional bulk water to the city. The cheapest alternative appeared to be the groundwater from the AK aquifer. Farmers with rights to water in the aquifer were quite happy to sell their water share to Metrowater.

Yet still, Chennai’s thirst refused to be satiated. Chennai then turned its thirsty eyes to the Kaveri waters, through the Veeranam Lake. This was an old idea: the foundation stone for the Veeranam project was laid by erstwhile chief minister Annadurai in 1967. The Veeranam Lake lies about 236 km from Chennai at the tail end of the Kaveri system — the lake is fed by a canal off the Coleroon, which in turn gets its water from the Kaveri. To illustrate the pecking order of this water supply: Tamil Nadu has to get its water share of the Kaveri, then the Coleroon has to get its water share, then the farmers dependent on the Coleroon have to get their water share, then the farmers dependent on the Vadavar channel (which feeds the Veeranam Lake) have to get their water share, after which drinking water can be supplied to Chennai. But no one ever said that imagination and spin are constraints of provision! In times of plenty, this will work. But does one ever complain during times of plenty?

But even the waters of the Kaveri could not sate Chennai’s thirst. Chennai turned to the sea. The sea was an inexhaustible but expensive source that could be tapped through desalination. The first of Chennai’s desalination came online in 2010, with second coming online in 2013. It is reported to cost Rs 1.36 crores every day in just O&M costs to procure this desalinated water. Chennai has just laid the foundation stone for another desalination plant.

People sit around a tower for measuring water depth in the dried-up Puzhal reservoir, on the outskirts in Chennai. REUTERS

People sit around a tower for measuring water depth in the dried-up Puzhal reservoir, on the outskirts in Chennai. REUTERS

As 2019’s shortage intensifies, new sources of provision are explored or at least announced — including the possibility of transporting 10 million litres of water per day by rail from Jolarpet, eliciting an instant threat of reprisal from a rival political party.

Readers maybe noticing a complete absence of focus on management. Contrast Chennai’s history with Israel (with roughly comparable populations). Why did Israel focus on management and innovation when Chennai continued to rely on provision? This is an important question, and one we will return to later.

Until now, we have spoken only of official water supply. But as the city expanded outwards, its water supply steadily reached underground. There are few estimates of just how much water private borewells extract in Chennai, but it is vast, and it is unregulated. To wit, the Central Ground Water Board had declared in 2017 that Chennai had overdrawn its ground water 1.85 times! That means for every litre of ground water available, Chennai was withdrawing almost two litres. We have discovered for ourselves just how sustainable that is.

With all this provision, in the summer of 2019, Chennai is experiencing 50 shades of Day Zero.

There was once a cheerful barber, who, though poor, was content in his life. One day, when crossing a wood on his way home, he heard a yaksha’s (celestial being) voice say, ‘O barber, when you go home you will find seven pots of gold. If you don’t want them, return them to me as you found them’.  The barber rushed home and found there were indeed seven pots. Six of them were filled to the brim with gold coins. But the seventh was half empty. Disappointed, he determined that he would fill the pot. He worked harder at first, putting his extra earning into the pot. But it remained half full. He scrimped on his expenses, he sold his wife’s jewellery, he even got into debt. But the seventh pot remained stubbornly half full. And the barber’s cheerful demeanour vanished.

The king, noticing this, asked him if the barber, by any chance, had a yaksha offer him seven pots of gold? The barber was amazed. He first stared at the king and then nodded sadly. The king, smiling, said, ‘I too was offered the seven pots of the gold, and it took me a war to realise the seventh pot would never be filled. Return the pots and be happy as you are.’

Quenching Chennai’s thirst by leaning solely on provision is like trying to fill the yaksha’s seventh pot of gold.

When provision is so inadequate, why do we lean on it so much? One possible explanation is that it works well in a democracy, especially one with diverse voter interests and short voter timeframes. For a politician, provision is tangible proof that he is doing something for voter interests. It also can serve as a rent-provision mechanism. Management is slower, less glamourous, more decentralised. Importantly, impatient voters have often not rewarded sound water management. For more on this, read this, this, this and this.

But for any road out of this crisis is through the valley of management, which is where we go to next.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 09:33:47 IST